The Skillful Handling of Poison: Bodhicitta and the Kleśas in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra

Journal of Indian Philosophy 45 (2):331-348 (2017)
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This essay considers the eighth century Indian Buddhist monk, Śāntideva’s strategy of using the afflictive mental states for progress towards liberation in his Introduction to the Practice of Awakening. I begin by contrasting two images from the first chapter that represent the power of bodhicitta: the fires destroying the universe at the end of time, and the mercury elixir that transmutes base metals into gold. The first of these, I argue, better illustrates the text’s predominant strategy of destroying the afflictive mental states directly by their antidotes. The second, in contrast, represents an alternative strategy in which afflictive mental states like anger, craving and delusion, are manipulated for liberative gain. I offer several examples of Śāntideva’s use of the kleśas in his text, and argue that they can be understood as a continuation of the logic of skillful means, in which destructive actions, and here destructive mental states, are used to lessen suffering. Finally, I suggest that one reason Śāntideva employs the kleśas in this way is because of his realization that many practitioners early on the bodhisattva path will lack the motivation necessary to successfully pursue the difficult training of the bodhisattva.

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